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A sermon preached from John 12:1-8, as published in Lectionary Homiletics, by Kim Justice

“The Stench of Death, The Fragrance of Love”

When my parents moved away from our home of twenty three years, they moved right before Christmas. I was away at seminary and hadn’t even seen the house yet, but they wanted me to have a great first Christmas. In the two weeks before the move and Christmas, they unpacked as quickly as they could and had the house looking really great by time I got there. Surprised though I was, I walked in the door and immediately saw a fake, pre-lit tree, and some part of my heart just fell. It couldn’t possibly be Christmas if it didn’t smell like Christmas. Though I was pretty careful not to let my disappointment show, my parents seemed to read my mind. Mom said, “Honey, you forgot!” Knowing exactly what she was talking about, Dad rushed over to a drawer and grabbed a little bottle of spray. Suddenly, even though the tree was very definitely fake, it smelled like Christmas. I would’ve tried to put up a brave front, but something just would’ve been missing had Christmas not smelled the way Christmas smells.

Have you ever stopped to think about the power of smell? (I know, I know. There’s a bad pun waiting to happen there.) Obviously, we’re flooded with all sorts of smells every day, some good and some definitely not so good. Because our noses are assaulted by so many smells, certainly not all of them can be processed by our brains. But every now and then, a certain smell grabs your attention. Maybe you walk into a bakery, and the smell of all that bread takes you back to “the good ol’ days” when your Nana would bake rolls just because she knew you loved them. Or maybe you walk into a dear friend’s house, and immediately know you’re “home” just by the way it smells. Or maybe your big, stinky, wet dog gets so excited to come in that all she wants to do is love on you. Now you too smell like big, stinky, wet dog, but you don’t mind as much as you should because she just loves you so much.

Even as smell has the wonderful, magical power to take you somewhere safe and comforting, smells can also do the exact opposite. I remember the rainy cold day that my beloved car blew a head gasket just by the way it smells, and I think of that sad day every time I smell that smell on another car. When I go in emergency rooms, I think not only of the day I went to see Virginia Briggman and had to tell her that her sister had died in that wreck that they were in, but I also am taken back to the hours after my parents were in that really awful wreck last year. When I smell latex gloves, suddenly I’m sitting in a dentist’s chair as they try to put my teeth back together after that ice skating accident.

Smells are powerful. The most offensive smell I can think of is the smell of death. I bet every person in this room could describe the smell of a funeral: sickly sweet, half wilted flowers; ladies’ perfume and men’s aftershave; and then the food– because the parade of casserole bearing well-wishers has started. Every bit of it is well intentioned, but to the mourners, perhaps it all adds up to the stench of death. And what’s worse, every time you go to a funeral after that one that you were pretty sure you couldn’t make it through, you’ll be reminded of that day you’d really just as soon forget.

If we could have been in the room with Jesus and Lazarus and Mary and Martha and the disciples, perhaps we too we would have been assaulted by the stench of death. Judas sure caught a big whiff of it. It was offensive, really, truly, incredibly offensive. But for him, the room didn’t reek of sickly sweet flowers or overpowering aftershave. For him, the stench came from hopes dashed.

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for Judas. We’ve so thoroughly villianized him, that we forget that he was a disciple too. I can step back, and tell myself maybe he was there as a divine character would could start the ball rolling so that Jesus could die for our sins. I think that’s true, but I think that before Judas was the betrayer, I think he was a disciple who believed that Jesus might just be one who would change things. The other disciples didn’t get what was going on, didn’t understand that Jesus was really about to die, though they’d been warned by Jesus enough times. I think Judas might have understood more than we give him credit for. While he didn’t yet know that he was the one who would betray Jesus, he understood that Jesus would die. And in his mind, that meant that Jesus couldn’t be the one to change the world. Perhaps he was filled with disappointment, and that left him quite vulnerable to temptation. I can hear him now, “If he’s going to die any way, I might as well make a little money off of him. Somebody might get something good out of all this, and besides, I’ve given years of my life to serving him, and never gotten so much as a dime.”

As the day wore on, the lovely homey scene that we see in the text just got to be too much for Judas. The Hallmark world became something he wasn’t a part of. The stench of death became more and more powerful, and as it did, the stench changed sources. It was no longer the smell of disappointment, it was the smell of betrayal. And it was all over him.

To make matters worse, that woman made a big display of showing her love for Jesus. She poured oil on him, and washed his feet with her tears, and then dried them with her hair. It was disgusting, really. What an awful, unashamed display of affection. And it made Judas sicker and sicker until he had to say something. Finally, he just blurted out something about the wastefulness of all this display, thinking that surely any reasonable person would agree with him.

He might have been right, but he didn’t count on the fact that he was the only one smelling the stench of death. There was another smell in the room, and that’s what Jesus and the others were smelling. It was the fragrance of love.

Just as I know you’ve smelled the stench of death, I also know that you’ve smelled the fragrance of love. Maybe it’s the way your spouse’s clothes smell, or maybe it’s the smell of a clean house, which was cleaned for you as a labor of love when you were too overwhelmed to do it yourself. Maybe it’s the smell of a home-cooked meal that shows up on your doorstep when you’re too sick to cook it yourself.

I bought a sweater from Judy’s consignment shop last winter. If you’ve ever been in there, you know that the whole store has this nice, inviting, lightly perfumed smell that comes, I’d guess, from the women who work there. All day long, every time I moved, that smell was released. Because it reminded me of her, and because she’s one of my favorite folks, every time I smelled that smell, it was the fragrance of love to me. I remember that day because it was a rough day with too much going on. But every time I caught the fragrance of love, it made me smile just a little bit.

For Mary, the same Mary who just wanted to sit at Jesus’ feet while her sister Martha practiced hospitality, the smell in the room wasn’t the stench of death. All she could smell was love. The love that Jesus had for her. The love that Jesus showed her family when her brother Lazarus died.

I think it’s ironic that Mary smelled the fragrance of love so clearly, when we know she was the other person in the room who really “got” was Jesus was doing. After all, she was, in the best way she could, annointing him for burial. But even the fact that Jesus was getting ready die had a beautiful smell of love to it, at least to her nose.

Two characters. One called a betrayer, one hailed as a great giver of love. One who could only smell the stench of death, one who could smell nothing but the powerful smell of love.

As I’ve been thinking about these characters, I’ve had to laugh a little to myself. When I’d complain about some smell or other, my dad would always say “it’s your upper lip.” It’s a silly expression, but maybe there’s a little bit of serious truth behind it. Maybe you smell most clearly the smell that you give off, at least in the metaphorical sense.

For Judas, he metaphorically reeked of betrayal and greed. No wonder Mary’s act of love was so offensive to him: the more she tried to spread the divine smell of love, the more his own stench smelled sour to him. Then there’s Mary, who was so intent on filling the house with the fragrance of extravagant love that she couldn’t smell anything else, including the stink of Judas’ impending betrayal.

I wonder what the others in the room experienced while all of this was going on. They were probably being assaulted by these conflicting “smells”. Perhaps it depended on how they perceived Jesus and his ministry. Sometimes, I think, the great act of love that we see in Christ is sour for us when we realize that it wasn’t just for us. It was for even those that we don’t like, even for those with whom we disagree. That act of extravagant love was even for liars, and thieves, and murderers and adulterers. Sometimes our own greed makes that deed sour for us. Maybe you smell the stench of death on Christ’s act as you realize that the old way of life, which for you might be the “good ol‘ days”, is forever gone. But then again, once you’ve had the experience of being set free, maybe that act can smell nothing but sweet. What would you have smelled?

Maybe, in a surprising way, this text offers us a choice. Maybe it’s not just about what we smell, maybe it’s about the smell we give off. What are you offering the world? Are you sending out “stinkwaves” like the Peanuts character, Pigpen, or might folks think you belong in the same garbage can with Oscar the Grouch? Are you so full of the negatives that all you can smell is the stench of death, as you focus on the ways you’ve been hurt or let down? Or, are you filling the world with the fragrance of love? Are you making the world a better place, and changing people’s lives for the better? I’d say that the “smell” you’re giving off is directly related to how you perceive Christ’s death, and whether for you, it carries the stench of death or the fragrance of love.

I wonder how Christ’s longest walk to the cross smelled? Did it stink with betrayal, and greed, and mistrust, and death? Or was he maybe able to hold on to a few wafting smells of love?

We live in a world where we’re ok with seeing the foul things of life. We’re used to people only looking out for themselves. We’re used to not being able to trust anyone because they might hurt us. We convince ourselves that nothing really matters that much, and that our misdeeds really don’t smell as sour as we think they do. After all, if everyone is doing it, who could tell one stench of death from another?

But if we sit stewing in our own foulness of soul, when an extravagant fragrance of love wafts in, it makes the sour air around us all the more sour.

For you, does Christ’s death reek of unmet hopes, of grace granted to another “undeserving” one, of love for one who is “unlovable”? Or is it surrounded by the sweet fragrance of entirely extravagant love, because you know that you have been the unlovable one and that you have been called beloved anyway?

My prayer, as we begin this long journey to the cross with Jesus, is that we find ourselves filled with the fragrance of love. And not only that, but that the sweet aroma of extravagant love is so powerful on and around us, that all we want to do is fill the world with that same sweet smell. To do so, I think, is to begin living as Christ would have us live.

Amen.

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Borrowing Love
2.14.10 (Transfiguration/Ordinary 6c/Valentines Day)
1 Cor 13:1-13

Intro
Please go right ahead and roll your eyes. This passage ranks right up there with the Ten Commandments and John 3:16 as far as things we’ve heard so often that they no longer bear any weight. It’s right up there, too, with passages that we presume to be experts on, and probably just as often as we are right, we miss the mark about what this passage says.

We’ve turned it into a pithy statement on oooshy gooshy love, the mere mention of which conjures up images of tuxedos and big white dresses and the like. But before it became the most commonly read passage of scripture at weddings, it was a statement about how Christians were to behave towards one another.

The Corinthian Church
This letter was written to the church at Corinth, and if you’ve never done so, you should read the whole book. Paul was a busy guy, and he didn’t often write just to pat folks on the back and tell them what marvelous Christians they were being. This is certainly true of the letter to the Church at Corinth. As he often does in his letters, Paul introduces himself, and then proceeds to offer thanksgiving for the community to which he writes. But then, a mere ten verses in, his writing shifts in tone– Paul is concerned by the things he has heard about the church. They are quarreling amongst themselves, and the church has become divided. There is rampant immorality, folks are bringing lawsuits against other members, people neither know how to behave outside of a marriage or inside it. Rich folks get off work early and come gobble up the Lord’s Supper without waiting on the others in a way that is anything but holy.

Sure, the church at Corinth was full of gifts and promise. But clearly, they were an immature church that hadn’t yet exactly figured out what it was to be followers of Christ.

So, in the eloquent way that Paul is so good at, he calls the church to task. Make no mistake–these are not words that would have filled the Corinthians with warm fuzzies. Everything Paul says love is, they are not. What Paul says love is not, they are. But Paul is trying to shape this church so that it may be all that God has designed it to be.

As the church was called to task with these words, let’s see what they offer us. Remember that though these words are often read at weddings, this love isn’t just love between spouses. The Love Paul is talking about is the love that we are to show all people.

The Character of Love
Love is Patient,Love is Kind
The words that Paul uses here are the same words that he attributes to God in other places– which the early church would know. Thus as they heard these words, it would have been kind of a sub-conscious clue that the church should be looking to God as a role model for what true love looks like.

I wonder what patient, kind love looks like? Perhaps it means waiting for the person who doesn’t do things as fast as you’d like. Perhaps it means loving them in spite of mistakes, even if it’s a big mistake, or even if that person has made the same mistake over and over again. Perhaps a kind love is a love that really seeks to hold the best interests of the person

Love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It is not irritable or resentful.
Paul uses this same language earlier in the book when he takes the Corinthians to task, saying “For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh?”

When we are jealous of each other, when we think they have more of this or that than we do, we are tearing down or tearing apart the body of Christ. When we engage in petty power struggles with each other, or fail to treat someone like they are a beloved member of the body of Christ, we bear witness to exactly what our priorities are.

It does not insist on its own way;
This again is an echo of Paul’s earlier language where he has told the Corinthians that they are not to just be about themselves and their own desires, but they are to be about other people. He’s said, “Do not see, you own advantage but that of the other.”

Can you imagine what our world would look like if all of us were too busy worrying about making other folk’s lives better than we didn’t have time to look to our own interests? Can you imagine how transformed our world would be if we didn’t all operate to some extent on the principle of “It’s my way or the highway”?

It does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth
Paul is again confronting what our society thinks love is. We’ve decided that real love means turning a blind eye and looking at the world through rose colored glasses. Real love, we think, means choosing to ignore people’s bad ways because we are “accepting them just as they are.”

I don’t think this is what Paul means by love at all. Paul is quite concerned about all the wrong doing he sees, especially in the church, and he challenges believers to help each other get going in the right direction. For Paul, real love means helping others be a part of the Truth. However, I think Paul would also offer this caution, because sometimes we become so sure that other people need to hear our opinion on this or that, that we forget to always speak the truth in love. Everything we say must be said to build up the community, not because we have a selfish desire to say it. And things must be said carefully, so that our hearer doesn’t immediately shut his ears.

Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things
Perhaps this is the hardest of all for us to imagine. Can you imagine a love that could withstand all things, and believe that all things were possible, and endure even the things that were painful? It’s so hard for us to imagine a love that bears all things because we are so concerned about ourselves and taking care of our own interests. But when we take Paul’s earlier counsel on this seriously, perhaps that changes how much we are willing to bear.

Just a word of caution, because I have heard this part of scripture turned into something wrong and oppressive, Paul doesn’t intend for us to be in relationships that are abusive– just because Paul says that love bears all things does not mean he intends for us to be in destructive, damaging relationships.

Paul is also not advocating a Pollyanna sort of love either, where he indicates that love will be all sunshine and roses. Even the purest of love will face its challenges, and will have days that are tougher than others. What Paul is trying to help us understand is that real love doesn’t just throw in the towel when things get a little sticky.

The Primacy of Love
When we’re reading Paul’s words, it might, at first blush, seem like love is just another attribute that Christians are supposed to have, or maybe it’s just one more thing we’re supposed to do. Make no mistake. Love is not another spiritual gift, but the way in which God intends us to practice all of our gifts.1

How does that function within a community of believers? Every congregation has spoken and unspoken assumptions about what is most important. But when resources are scarce, tensions become enflamed, and sometimes those assumptions are voiced in ways that are hurtful and destructive. But remembering that love is a building block for everything that we do changes, perhaps, the ways that we do things…or at least reorders our priorities.

Maybe one day we’ll be a church with lots of great programs. What if we had programs that were attracting lots of folks, but they weren’t really things of substance and they weren’t focused particularly on loving other people. And what if we had some much smaller programs attended and supported by only the faithful few, but these programs really showed our care and concern for others. I think if there were money woes, any stewardship committee could rightfully say that we should cut the smaller programs, because they were cutting into our resources, whereas the larger programs were adding to our resources. But if we really took seriously our call to make love and care a priority, perhaps that would change our minds.

The Endurance of Love
But Paul reminds us that the things we do, most of the things in which we place great value will eventually fade away. The great programs we start will one day be replaced, hopefully, by greater programs. The church doors will again need to be painted. The building itself, which we work so hard to care for, may one day change shape or have to be fixed. The projector that was such a big deal to us may one day become obsolete. All of these things that we have worked so hard for, and all of the things that have that have been so divisive to us– every bit of it may fade into nothingness one day.

Paul reminds us that love will never fade into nothingness. I’ve sat in my office this week, and I’ve tried to argue with Paul. I’ve tried to imagine scenarios in which love could actually fade away, but try as I might I couldn’t think of any. Even in the case of death of a loved one, all the love you put into a relationship still means something to you… love still builds you, the living one, up. Even if two folks can’t make a marriage work, and in the end they separate, everything loving that you have done and everything loving you have received gives you strength in a really tough time.
I don’t know much about investments or investing, but from what I hear, it’s a fairly scary thing to do. Even when something seems so sure and safe, sometimes it can turn out to be gone within a matter of minutes. People that have invested money always, to some extent, need to worry about it. But, I think, investing love is different. The only thing investing love can do–in any relationship– is build up. Investing real love in someone, without trying to manipulate them or trying to lord your righteousness over them, can only change the relationship for the better. (Even if the ones whom you are loving aren’t eager recipients– some folks will tell you they just want to be left alone and they don’t need anything from anyone, the practice of investing love in them anyway makes you a stronger, better person.)

The Challenge of Love (Borrowing Love)

Today is Valentine’s Day (which should not be news to anyone, I hope!). This is one of those holidays that I’ve never cared much about. Aside from getting Little Debbie Cakes and fruit punch at school, I always thought the day was pretty much ridiculous. Someone’s feelings were always getting hurt when they didn’t get as many valentines as someone else, or if they didn’t get a valentine from that boy or girl they were making google eyes over. As I got older, I saw lots of folks working really hard to make sure they were dating someone just so they didn’t have to be alone on Valentines day. And the ones that didn’t find someone to date pined away and had anti-valentines parties just to show the world that they were tough and didn’t care, even though they doubtlessly cared a lot more than they let on. As I got older still, I recognized that for some folks, Valentine’s Day was just another reminder of the people that were no longer part of their lives. All these reasons are enough to make anyone, if they thought about it very much, turn away from Valentines day. But add all that to the mushy sentimentality and unrealistic expectations, and wow…
But all those things aren’t the main reason I’ve never been a fan of Valentine’s Day. Love should be celebrated every day, not just on a day that Hallmark tells us we should. And besides that, one day of showing a little bit of love does not make up for 364 days of putting yourself and your needs ahead of everyone else’s!
I’d argue that every single day ought to be a celebration of love, not just between couples, but with every one that we meet. That sounds lovely. But if you happen to be thinking about what I’m asking, your brow will quickly furrow because exhibiting that much love just isn’t possible. Some days you just don’t feel like showing love. Some days life gets in the way.
My husband likes to talk about borrowing trouble, as in I’m taking trouble from tomorrow to worry about something that hasn’t happened today. But one day he was in a sweet mood and I was grumpy and probably snippy, and he said “let’s just be nice”, to which I responded “But I don’t feel like being nice.” Without missing a beat, he said, “Why don’t you borrow a little niceness?” Well, I guess if you can borrow trouble, then you can borrow nice. You can take it from a day when you might have some extra to give. Maybe love works like that too.

Some days, you can think of a lot more reasons to be foul and ill tempered towards someone. Some days, you’re pretty sure that they deserve for you to be foul and ill tempered. But what if you made it a practice to borrow love? You could borrow it from those days when everything is right, or maybe you could borrow a tiny pinch from your interactions with someone you just can’t say enough nice things to or do enough nice things for. If love worked like a set of measures, where you only have a certain amount, I’d bet it would probably be more important to share a little love with someone who needs it most than it would to keep showering your favorite over and over. But that’s the funny thing about love– it doesn’t work that way. The more fully you can give it away, and the more people you can find to give it to, the more you have. The more you try to mete is out to those that make you feel nice or to the ones that deserve it most, the less love you have to give. Love begets love, and stinginess begets stinginess.

Today is also another day in the church– Transfiguration Sunday. It’s the day when the church remembers that Jesus went up on the mountain, and literally changed form. Pastors wrestle over how to preach it each year because it doesn’t seem to be very preachable. But, I think, there is something miraculous about being changed and transformed. My prayer for you today is that you will open your heart, that love from others will rush in, and that love for others will gush out and get all over everything you touch. May love transform and transfigure you. And if you’re pretty certain that you don’t have any extra to give a certain person or cause, maybe you can borrow a pinch or two from some other places in your life. The kind of love that God in Christ shows us doesn’t pick and chose, but invests love in all. Make it a practice to invest love in all you meet– and watch just how blessed your own life becomes as a result.

To the God who transforms us with his love be the glory. Amen.

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“In Sickness and In Health”– those are popular words of marriage vows. Every husband and wife expects to have those tested, but as church members call a pastor, those words never come to mind. Yet, for my church, these words I think, have been a part of our covenant life together. I’ve spent most of the fall in ill health, in one form or another: swine flu, bronchitis, mystery illness that’s made me sick to my stomach for over a month… only to name a few. And even when I’m not actively sick, I’m still not well. But between sicknesses I’ve been pushing myself so hard, I just get sick again and again. I’ve wiped out my immune system so I catch any germ that wanders by my face. I’m 28, but the words “I just can’t do what I used to do” ring true for me, and I’ve had to slow down considerably.

Yet, the 95% of people that love me at the church have continued to love on me, even during my sickness. They’ve supported me, and offered help, and advised me to slow down. They’ve checked on me and worried about me and prayed for me, and lowered their expectations considerably so that I might really get well. All that would’ve been amazing, and it would have been above and beyond. But then, Sunday, they surprised us with a Christmas Love Offering– I’m beyond grateful. I’m not gonna lie, we weren’t exactly sure where the money for Christmas presents was going to come from, as I have more doctors bills than anyone ought. (Though, no doubt, it could be infinitely worse. I’m one of the lucky ones with insurance.) But what bowls me over, besides God’s provision that always shows up at such amazing times, in such amazing ways, is that folks could love us this much– especially at a time when I’m doing only the barest of minimums.

For better, and for worse.

Indeed.

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The sermon I preached from Song of Solomon 2:8 and following this morning. Because several folks have asked..

I’m betting we’ve all had the experience of stumbling on a young couple, who are OBVIOUSLY very much in love.

I probably really don’t need to describe it,but here goes anyway: They’re in some public place, and they are sitting so close that there’s not even any room for the Holy Spirit (And if we’re lucky, all they are doing is sitting close)
If we’re unlucky, they are smooching or gazing stupidly into one another’s eyes. They have stars in their eyes, and butterflies in their stomachs. In short, they could not possibly be any more disgusting if they tried!

But perhaps we’re so disgusted because we tell ourselves that couple is just being silly– CLEARLY they are just “teenagers”, who clearly don’t even know what love is. All they have to go by is what they see on the movies.

But the rest of us, who have been married know that that’s not the shape of love at all: “Real” love is a much more grounded, bill-paying, raising-the-kids, worrying-about-the-leaky-roof sort of thing. Staring stupidly in to each other’s eyes doesn’t pay the bills, get the kids raised well, or help the suddenly leaking roof.

When we see these “lovebirds” We roll our eyes, and make loud disgruntled noises– hoping that they’ll catch a hint . But they won’t– because they are so wrapped up in each other that they see nothing else. They are unapologetic about it. So we walk away, disparing of “teenagers today”.

In some ways, I feel just like I do when I see some smooching kids when I come to this text from the Bible: Awkward and Disgruntled. And waiting for an apology for such socially unacceptable behavior.

But I read through the entire book, and I found no such thing. No apology.
No embarrassed giggles that arise from being discovered. Not even a hint that the “lover” and “beloved” even notice that I’m watching them.

And to make matters worse, God doesn’t even show up in the book– at least not mentioned by name.

I wonder how this collection of poems, which doesn’t mention God, and doesn’t have a plot, even made it into our Bible. So now you’re not only wondering why it’s in the Bible, but why the lectionary people chose it, and not only that, but why in the world your preacher would choose to preach it when there are other marvelous “useful” passages for the week, like about the Pharisees calling the disciples dirty because they wouldn’t wash their hands, or even the passage from James that insists hearing the word isn’t enough.

Why would I do such a thing? Good question.

I have a firm and certain belief that the things in the Bible were intended to be helpful to us– and sometimes I love a good challenge, so I like to dig around to find their purpose. I feel like an archeologist some days.

As I did some reading for this one– I wasn’t really prepared for what I found. I had more or less believed that the Song of Songs was an allegory for Christ’s love for us– after all, in a couple of places, we hear mention of Christ as the Bridegroom. In Hosea, we know that God sets hosea up with a prostitute and it’s a metaphor for the unfaithfulness of Gods people, and how God loves them inspite of all of that. It made perfect sense that this raw poetry might also function in the same way.

But… every commentary I read says that to interpret this book only in that way is robbing the book of something. That unmade my day in a hurry– after all, if it wasn’t an allegory… well, then that meant that it was about exactly what it sounds like its about: a celebration of a man and woman’s love for each other, about the blossoming of a love that is rich, and deep, and uncontainable, about a passion that was spilling out all over the pages, and quite simply making a mess.

But here is what I think is really useful about that: Human love can at best be a glimpse of God’s love, but we humans are so limited, and have such a small range of understanding that we can’t even begin to grasp what God’s love must look like. To even start, we have a great tendancy to impose what we know of the world upon God. It’s not the best plan, because God is so infinitely more amazing than we can know and to impose what we know of the world is really to cheat God. But… we’re going to do it anyway, and we might as well have a beautiful image of human love to even begin to grasp what God’s love looks like.

What better way to imagine God’s love for us than to think about a couple who is so fully in love with each other that it’s all they know? I’d sure rather think about that, than I would, say, about Edith and Archie Bunker who never seemed to be on the same page.

It’s a lot more stirring to think of our relationship with God as a couple who quite simply can’t get enough of each other, than it is to think about our relationship with God as “Is it your turn to scoop the litterbox, or mine?”

Even if having a beautiful picture of human love was the only reason to have put this book in the Bible, I’m all for it. We live in a cultural filled with sex– but we don’t know really what to do with love.

But I don’t think that is the only reason. I think this whole book both speaks powerfully to the transformative quality of love, and paints a glorious picture of what God’s love really looks like for us.

Imagine back to the days when you were “stupidly in love”. We live in a culture where we choose the one to marry, instead of a place where it is chosen for us, all of us that have been married have surely experienced this feeling: that feeling of sheer enchantment; of waking with your beloved on your mind, and of going to sleep waiting for the morning so that you could spend another day growing more in love.

Think back to the magical time before the day-to-day stuff intruded.

Do you remember what YOU were like?

When Donovan and I were dating, I felt like the most beautiful thing in the world. I had the perpetual feeling that birds were singing all around me, and I don’t remember ever seeing a cloudy day. I believed that I could do anything that I put my mind to, so long as my beloved was proud and supportive of me.

I think that magical time was the time in my life when I was the nicest person. Somebody could pay for a cart full of groceries in all pennies, or steal the parking place I had my eye on, and it wouldn’t have ruffled my feathers a bit.

To be beloved really changes things. To live in that short, though magical time, where the only thing that matters is being worthy of your beloved’s heart is to dance one of the most amazing dances of intimacy.

To be in love is to find your whole being tied up in that other person.

Being Beloved changes things:
I remember when I was in high school, I took this class called “Bible as Literature”– and I remember discussing Song of Solomon.
The teacher said that evidence said that it was likely that the lover and beloved that we meet in these poems were probably not physically beautiful–at least not in a way that we would typically think of as beautiful. After all, they were outside all day. Their skin and hair would have been very rough.

But when they gazed stupidly into each other’s eyes, they could see nothing but beauty in the other. And not even the “oh, she’s a beautiful person inside” sort of way. When they gazed stupidly into each other’s eyes, they were flooded with energy and hormones, because the person standing in front of them was the most beautiful creature they had ever seen. And so beautiful that they had to sing about it.

Can you imagine being the recipient of so much love? Can you imagine how that would change your world view?

The fact that it feels like a cheesy preacher move isn’t enough to keep me from saying it. The way that these lovers feel about each other is the way that God feels about us.

That’s a tough thing for me to say. I don’t think I much care to think about God in the words that these lovers use for each other. The words that we find in this passage are sensual, no doubt. But they’re not just about a physical love-they’re as much about a soul love as they are about anything else.

But still, I don’t think most of us are quite comfortable thinking about our relationship with God in this way.

Then again, we live in a somewhat puritanical society. That’s odd, because like I mentioned before, our world is filled with sex. Even toothpaste adds– I mean, c’mon! But the truth is is that we’re uncomfortable with people having these sorts of emotions.

And that someone would suggest that God’s love for us is like what we find in Song of Songs is shocking!!

Some of the ancient Greeks thought that folks were getting too emotional, and they started a movement called “Stoicism”– which praised ideals that were logical. To be a person of passion was highly frowned upon.

In some ways, that’s carried over. In our own Westminster Confession of Faith, we are told that God is “without body parts or passions.” The body parts thing I get–that refutes that God is a person just like us.
But without “passion”– I don’t think that’s true at all! The scriptures are filled with stories of God’s passion for his creation. Rare are the stories of God’s sitting up on a cloud with divine indifference!

I don’t think most of us think of God as “without passions”. So why in the world would we believe that God wants the relationship between each of us and God to be without passion?

What we see in this passage is a terrifically intimate dance between the creator and the created. The fact that God isn’t mentioned by name doesn’t change that. The writer and audience of this would have supposed that God’s hand was in it. They would have supposed that all of this was a gift from God.

And here’s a really interesting thought that I came across as I was studying: The poems gathered in this book are a parallel (though moving in positively opposite directions) to what we find in Genesis. In Genesis, we’re learning what the world looks like after the fall–Separation of people from each other, separation of those people from God. In Song of Songs, we see what it can be like to dance with God. Though the process won’t be complete until Christ comes again, we can always be moving toward such a divine, intimate dance.

God loves each of us positively. And even positively intimately. It’s shocking!

But I get the feeling that God doesn’t mind shocking us out of our drudgery and puritanical ways. God doesn’t mind shocking us with his overflowing, passionate, love.

God loves each of us as if we were the only ones in the world. Deeply and fully, and in a way that we’ll never be able to really get.

Sometimes, when I get really busy, Donovan will take me away from whatever mundane task that’s sucking away my energy and he’ll say, “Pretend I’m the only thing that matters. Pretend that you have nothing else to worry about besides spending time with me.”

I think God must say that too.

In the Song of Songs, God says, “Arise my love. Come away with me.”
”Come away from your passionless, puritanical selves.”
”Come away from the things that rob you of your joy.”
“Come away from your notion of our relationship.”
“Come away from seeing me as distant and uncaring.”

Come dance with me. Dance joyfully, passionately. Look into my eyes, and see only me.

Amen.

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Graduation Sunday?

In Seminary, I learned to preach. That is, I learned to take a particular text, and exegete it, and sculpt it, and ask it how it applied to my context, to my people. I learned that the lectionary was my friend. I learned how to make the texts ask more questions than they answered. What I did not learn to do was pick out texts, drain the messiness out of them, and package them up nicely for an event. In some ways, I feel like Graduation Sunday is one of those events that almost calls for such a “packaged” sermon…something “Halmark-y” would probably do just fine.

I got nothin’.

Sunday’s the day we’re celebrating in our church. I learned it’s been a long standing custom to have the graduates process in with their graduation regalia. (I don’t know how much of a procession two people is, but that’s not the point.) The pianist plays “Pomp and Circumstance.” And in some ways, from what I’ve heard, it feels like the day is supposed to be a miniature graduation, with some worship thrown in on the side. That’s not my bag o’tricks!

I’ve spent some time thinking about what I’ve learned since Graduation, and perhaps the most wise thing I can say to them is “Welcome to the Rat Race. You were protected before. Now you’re not. Now it’s up to you to make it or break it in this world.” When I graduated, I just knew that I was going to be “somebody”. With that comes pressure, to be more, and do more, and have more. Maybe adding a “Mrs” to the front of my name would make me somebody? Maybe adding random letters after my name would help? “Mrs. Kim Justice, B.A., M.Div” Or maybe even gaining a “Reverend” to add to all that. Maybe if I drove the right car, belonged to the right sorts of organizations, had my name in the right publications, maybe I’d finally feel like I had arrived.

Welcome to the Rat Race, Indeed.

I think the most important thing that I’ve learned in the nine years since I graduated from high school is that really, none of that adds up to a hill of beans. Titles just bring pressure for more titles. Stuff just brings pressure for more stuff. Those things are nothing upon which to base an identity. What I couldn’t have appreciated then, but really do now, is that my identity really isn’t wrapped up in those things. My identity comes from the fact that God has claimed me–even on days when I fail miserably. As Thomas Merton said, “Who am I? I’m one beloved by Christ.” Maybe I’ll preach Paul and his list of credentials– and how in the end, he realized that wasn’t his identity. I don’t know, maybe they won’t be able to hear it any better than I would’ve been, but then again, maybe it gives them permission not to be perfect.

Ugh.

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I’ve comitted myself to blogging on a regular basis, but also promised myself that I wouldn’t just write posts to write posts. All of this leaves me in a constant flux about what is actually “post worthy”. And lately, I haven’t found much to talk about.
But yesterday, all of the sudden, three different things popped onto my radar. So maybe this post will feel a little random and disconnected, but I guess you gotta work with what you’re given.

1. “There Are No Atheists in a Foxhole”
Or maybe not in a space shuttle either. I’ve seen several space shuttle launches, and they never cease to fascinate me. But yesterday, as everyone was chattering about what a dangerous mission this latest one is going to be, I had some new thoughts. What is it like to be strapped into the shuttle as they start the T minus 9 countdown? What are you thinking? Do you think, “I hope my spouse knows how much I love them– I may never see them again?” or maybe, “I’m so excited. I’ve been training hard, and I know everything there is to know. I’m going to SPACE!” And if you’re a spouse on the ground, what then do you think?
I don’t know, but I’d bet it’d be awfully hard not to pray to any God while you’re sitting there waiting to leave (and throughout your mission). Seems to me there must be a sort of urgency behind it all– almost as if you really NEED something to believe in. I wonder if it feels like a life and death situation?
Not that I think we should all have to fly to space to believe in God, but I wonder if a tiny bit of that sense of urgency might be helpful to the modern church and its believers. I think one of the biggest problems facing the church these days is that folks have convinced themselves that they don’t really need God. In lots of ways, we have things easy compared to generations before us. We’re a DIY society, and that leaves little place for God. How do we recover that sense of really needing to believe in something bigger than ourselves? And what would that mean for the church if society’s beliefs really shifted that way? I don’t know, but I sure do wonder…

2. On Spontanaity
I plan things very carefully, including not only my day ahead, but often weeks and months in the future. I know just what needs to be done and how much time I have to do it. And there isn’t a lot of room in there because (as my father and husband like to remind me) I plan more than can ever be done. Worse yet, it makes me feel very behind when I realize that I can’t fit it all in.
Imagine my surprise when my husband asked me to go on a movie date IN THE MIDDLE OF THE DAY, and when I heard myself say, “Well…that sounds like fun. Ok.” I had my mind on lots of things, and truthfully, it might have been getting a little crowded in my brain. But as we drove, I felt so excited.
I’ve started The Artist’s Way and one of the things Cameron suggests is an artist date…something that frees your spirit and allows your spirit of creativity to come out and play. I don’t know that I feel more creative, but I do feel a little freer. I do feel a little more prepared to conquer my ever growing to-do list.

3. The Soloist
The movie the Husband took me to was the Soloist. Here’s what I thought:

This movie, on the surface, seems to be about a middle class white guy who meets a man on the streets, desires to help him “get out”, and then gets frustrated when the man doesn’t wish to be saved. But really, it’s about more than that. It’s a lesson on friendship, and the parameters thereof. It’s about the passions that make life worth living, and the ones that make the world make any sort of sense. But, at its heart, it’s really about love, and what love requires.
Is the loving thing to do to pluck a homeless man off the streets and try to make him fit in your world? Or is it, perhaps, more loving to meet him where he is and as Steve Lopez’s wife says in the movie, “Simply show up. You can’t save him. All you can do is be his friend. Simply show up.” In some ways, this movie reminds me that most of us walk around with a Messiah Complex, thinking that everyone needs to be saved. It also reminds me that we all really need saving, though not in the ways people often guess that we need.
This movie isn’t a “Christian” movie. In fact, the references to God and religion seemed to be painted in a mostly negative light. But maybe on other levels, this movie is deeply Christian. What does it mean to really love someone? How do you go about that whole “love your neighbor as yourself” thing? What does God’s love look like? Does it give up on us, frustrated by our stubborness, or does God’s love meet us where we are, over and over again?

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